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The Brief, Wondrous Life of New Oscar Categories

It was the press release that launched a thousand takes: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, better known as the people who give out the Oscars, announced on Wednesday that they would be making changes to the coming ceremonies. In addition to some scheduling and broadcast editing alterations, the Academy announced a new category meant to award “popular” films.

The backlash from the critical community was immediate and harsh, with reactions ranging from Stephanie Zacharek’s insightful piece about the cynical nature of such an award to Daniel Holloway’s excellently-reported insider account of the reasoning behind these changes to Mark Harris pointing out on Twitter that, “It truly is something that in the year Black Panther, a movie made just about entirely by and with black people, grosses $700 million, the Academy's reaction is, ‘We need to invent something separate...but equal.’ ”

This is not the first time that the AMPAS has added a new category of award to the Oscars. In fact, the Oscar categories have tended to reflect changes in the industry and culture. Looking at the history of the Oscars, a distinction between two types of new categories can be drawn: the first are catch-up categories, which were introduced as the film industry blossomed and the AMPAS grew but which could rightly have been awarded from the beginning; the second are new technical categories, which were introduced as the medium of film evolved from silent, monochromatic pictures to the synesthetic phantasmagoria we know and love today. Examples of the first type include Supporting Actor/Actress and Makeup, while the introduction of categories for Sound Recording and Animated Feature are examples of the latter.

The first ceremony, which recognized films made from August 1, 1927 to August 1, 1928, featured a slate of award categories that was very different from its modern equivalent. The top award was split between Wings, which won Outstanding Picture, and Sunrise, which won Unique and Artistic Picture. The Directing awards were also split, in this case between Comedy Picture and Dramatic Picture. There were Writing awards for Adaptation, Original Story, and Title Writing, only two Acting awards were given (for Actor and Actress), and both Cinematography and Art Direction each featured only a single award. In what would become a pattern for the Oscars, The Jazz Singer was given a Special Award for revolutionizing the industry via its use of integrated sound, a move that preceded the introduction of the Sound Recording award category two years later.

The seventh and eighth Oscar ceremonies introduced awards for Music, which were divided between Song and Scoring, and Dance Direction, in order to recognize the reigning genre of the time: musicals. The Dance Direction category would only last for three years, from 1935-1937, and legendary musical director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was nominated each year without ever taking home the statue. While immaculately choreographed dance routines are rarely seen outside of homages these days, music has remained an integral part of the filmic medium, and the Music categories are still important today.

Another award that was discontinued in 1937 was the one for Assistant Director, a category with a brief but fascinating history. The first year it was awarded was in 1932-33, and seven statues were given, one to an AD from each of the major studios. The category became more competitive in later years, with a single award being given for work on a specific film, but the 1932-33 awards were a moment where the collaborative nature of film, especially in the era of the studio system, was recognized by the Oscars. The Assistant Director award is a rare instance where the AMPAS added a catch-up category only to remove it soon after, despite the fact that ADs never stopped being an important part of film production.

The twelfth Academy Awards in 1939 introduced categories for Special Effects as well as a split in the Cinematography category between color and black-and-white films. As tensions heightened in Europe and war broke out in Asia, Americans went to the theaters in droves to see Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, two technicolor films that stood out of a field of classics (Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington both garnered awards that year) for their spectacle and scale. The color vs black-and-white Cinematography category division may be instructive in the discussion of the newly-announced “popular” category going forward: the two were split until 1967, when the black-and-white award was discontinued, but until that time a highbrow/lowbrow distinction evolved, with black-and-white films tending to be dramas while color films tended to be epics and musicals. While this reflects the production patterns of the period more than the tastes of AMPAS voters per se, a similar division may occur between the Best Picture and “popular” categories, with modern indie films standing in for the black-and-white dramas of yore.

The fourteenth Oscars, honoring films released in 1941, were nearly cancelled due to Pearl Harbor and the death of star Carole Lombard, who died in a plane accident on the way back from a war bond tour. Instead, the ceremony was scaled down and a new category, Documentary, was introduced to recognize the fact that film was an important tool in reporting on the Second World War. The category was dominated by war documentaries through 1948, and awards were given to producers including the British Ministry of Information and the U.S. Army. By the end of the war, the award had split into the familiar Short Subject and Feature categories that we know today.

In its earliest days, the Oscars tended to give special awards to films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as well as individuals like makeup artist William Tuttle for his exemplary work on 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. The pattern of these special awards becoming competitive categories is best exemplified by the fact that the Makeup (later Makeup and Hairstyle) was introduced in 1981 after an industry-wide backlash against the AMPAS for not giving makeup artist Christopher Tucker a special award in 1980 for his work on The Elephant Man.

The newest category (before Wednesday) was Animated Feature Film, which was introduced in 2001. Prior to that year, the AMPAS had recognized individual animated films with special awards and even included Beauty and the Beast in the running for Best Picture in 1991, but nearly all of these awards went to Disney, which held a virtual monopoly on traditional animation for decades. The AMPAS did not introduce a competitive Animated Feature category until 2001, when Disney’s domination of the animated film realm came to an end with the advent of cheap computer animation. Shrek, the first winner of the Animated Feature Film award, was produced by DreamWorks and grossed $484 million worldwide, proving that Disney was no longer the only studio capable of producing successful animated films.

While the exact criteria for the new “popular” film category has yet to be divulged, the tensions along which this rift has been developing are plain to see. The last film produced by a major studio to win Best Picture was The Departed in 2006, a time in the dim past when the cultural monolith that is Marvel Studios had yet to reshape the Hollywood landscape in its own image. There are already rumblings—and reporting—suggesting that the “popular” category is meant to reward Marvel (and, therefore, Disney) films in particular, a conspiracy only reinforced by the fact that the Oscars airs on the Disney-owned ABC Network, but this should be tabled until further information is released.

The Oscars have always been a commercial enterprise first and a means of recognizing artistic excellence second. The AMPAS was founded in May of 1927 in order to head off a labor strike and counteract negative press about the film industry. The first Oscars ceremony was held three months after the winners had been released to the press and was attended almost entirely by AMPAS members. In his book 80 Years of Oscar, actor and film historian Robert Osborne quotes AMPAS President Douglas Fairbanks when he presented the first round of awards:

In explaining the difficulty the five final judges had in making their selections, [Fairbanks] commented, “It is a bit like asking, ‘Does this man play checkers better than that man plays chess?’ ”

From the beginning, the notion of ranking different films and awarding the best was recognized as being inherently impossible, yet the Oscars have become a cultural institution that does just that each year. The addition of the “popular” category will be yet another marker in the evolution of American film that historians will point to decades from now to explain all of the changes that have taken place in the last decade.

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